Dalhousie Law professor plans to discuss problems with today's legal system.
A positive response to a controversial issue is being planned for February here at StFX. On February 10th in the Coady Institute’s Dennis Hall from 12-1:30pm, the Women’s and Gender Studies Department will host Elaine Craig, Associate Professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. This presentation comes in response to an opinions article published in the Xaverian Weekly in November 2016.
The article was written by third year Women’s and Gender Studies student Jasmine Cormier in response to Marie Henein being scheduled to speak at Bishop’s University, a speech that will be broadcast to all 4 schools in the Maple League, including StFX. Marie Henein is the criminal defense lawyer who represented Jian Ghomeshi in his 2014 sexual assault trial. In the opinions article, Jasmine questioned the decision to have the Maple League lecture broadcasted to our campus. She highlighted recent events surrounding the unveiling of a new sexual violence policy, and the university’s efforts to improve the way sexual violence is addressed on campus.
She also focused on the fact that some sexual assault survivors may not be able to attend this event, due to the context surrounding Marie Henein, and the way in which she contested the survivors’ testimonies in the case. Cormier stated that Henein has a right to do her job, but she may not have been the best choice as a speaker in the context of this campus:
“In order to further improve the lives and education of students and everyone else at StFX, difficult conversations about sexual violence need to be had. Marie Henein is entitled to her freedom of speech, and she is entitled to do her job. However, in all fairness to everyone at this university, the safety of students at this school comes first and foremost.”
The article gained a lot of traction, and was picked up by various news outlets with national coverage such as CBC, the Toronto Star, Global News, Huffington Post, and the Canadian Press. Responses to the article included proclamation that it was an attack on Henein’s right to free speech, and labelling university students as “frail, hypersensitive creatures,” who need to “take the soother out of their mouth and step outside their echo chamber” (Toronto Sun).
Women’s and Gender Studies professor Nancy Forestell highlights the discrepancy between the defence of Henein and the attacks on Cormier and university students as a whole: “The response centered almost exclusively on individuals claiming… that this was a matter of freedom of speech. What I found troubling is that there were few people recognizing or supporting an undergraduate student’s right to speak out on something. I think that this response could be interpreted as a way of shutting her up. After seeing these responses, what other student would want to question a decision about a speaker if that’s the kind of response that would be elicited?”
In the wake of the controversy, a group of students, faculty, staff got together to brainstorm a productive response to broaden the conversation around sexual violence and the legal system. Elaine Craig was selected as the speaker to facilitate this conversation. Craig holds a Bachelor of Law from Dalhousie, a Masters of Law from Yale, and a Doctor of Juridical Science from Dalhousie. Her research topics include sexual assault law and criminal law ethics. Notable publications include “The Inhospitable Court,” “The Ethical Identity of Sexual Assault Lawyers,” and "The Ethical Obligations of Defence Counsel in Sexual Assault Cases.”
Forestell hopes students come away with a better understanding of sexual assault and the legal system, as well as the importance of being critical of the legal system: “This discussion is coming from someone who isn’t necessarily a practitioner, but someone who is an academic researcher who has carefully examined how the legal system operates. The legal system can be altered in a way that ensures that alleged perpetrators get a fair hearing and skilled representation while simultaneously not re-victimizing survivors of sexual violence.”
The university administration has been supportive of this initiative. Academic Vice President and Provost, Kevin Wamsley, has agreed to provide resources for the talk to take place. He expressed his support via email: “Dr. Forestell approached me some time ago with an idea and a proposed budget. It is my role to support and promote academic inquiry in a variety of areas and disciplines and I am pleased to support this event.”
Although this is a response to the Maple League broadcast, Forestell hopes that members of the campus community who are able to will participate in both presentations. Her ideal solution to the controversy would have been broader consultation in the selection process, but does not wish for the event to be cancelled: “The notion that it shouldn’t be broadcasted feeds an argument that I don’t agree with, that raising any kind of concern, or critical questioning results in one being against freedom of speech. This is a conversation that needs to happen and needs to involve someone with expertise to address the issue.”
Jasmine Cormier also weighed in on the upcoming talk: “Elaine Craig's presentation is intended to create a positive dialogue surrounding sexual violence, and how sexual violence is treated within the law. I hope the takeaway is that this is a serious issue that needs to be talked about in a progressive way that is accessible to everyone.”